In a major blow to the ruling Democratic Party in South Korea and the Korean peace process, the right-wing opposition candidate Yoon Seok-yeol has won the presidential election. The final results declared on Thursday, March 10, People Power Party’s Yoon won 48.56% of the votes, over 47.83% won by Democratic Party’s Lee Jae-Myung. The voter turnout stood at 77.1%.
The difference of a mere 0.7% makes it the closest margin of South Korea’s presidential election. The center-left Justice Party’s Sim Sang-jung came a distant third with 2.38% of the votes, while the nine other candidates in the race had less than a percentage of votes.
The results of what has been described as the most “unlikeable election” also display one of the most polarized elections the country has witnessed since 2012, when Park Geun-hye, daughter of the former military dictator Park Chung-hee, was elected as president.
Yoon served as the prosecutor general of South Korea between 2019 and 2021, appointed by President Moon, and was a relative outsider in the nation’s mainstream conservative political bloc.
He became a popular face among the right-wing opposition for his prosecution of the justice minister of Moon’s administration, Cho Kuk, and the resulting tense relations he had with the president during his time in office.
Yoon joined the PPP last year in July and became a front-runner for the party’s primary. He defeated an established conservative leader like Hong Joon-Pyo, who was the runner-up in the 2017 presidential election as a nominee of Liberty Party, one of the predecessors of the PPP.
Yoon’s politics have been more right-wing than many establishment conservatives. He is known for his public admiration for former military dictator Chun Doo-hwan who was responsible for the infamous Gwangju Massacre. He also has advocated for intensifying existing neoliberal policies, along with xenophobic statements on migrant workers from China and for targeting the country’s feminist movement.
His victory also marks a success in the consolidation campaign among right-wing and conservative forces in the country. Ever since the setback in 2016 legislative elections and the subsequent corruption scandals that hit the ruling bloc under Park Geun-hye in 2017, conservatives have been facing multiple defeats at different elections.
Yoon’s appeals for a big tent right-wing unity was heeded by conservatives political leadership across parties, like Ahn Cheol-soo, another prominent right-wing candidate who withdrew his candidacy earlier this month and threw his weight behind Yoon.
The results also threaten to either stifle or completely derail the inter-Korean peace process, as Yoon has campaigned on a platform critical of President Moon’s peace negotiations with North Korea. He also advocates for closer military relationships with the United States and its allies in the Asia-Pacific, along with expanding South Korea’s military capabilities and ballistic missile systems.
Despite the victory, for at least the next two years Yoon will be heading a difficult presidency, as the National Assembly continues to remain under the Democratic Party’s control, which holds a clear majority of 177 seats in the 300-member house. The legislature is not set to face elections until April 2024.